MENDELSSOHN: Cello Sonata No. 2; Song without Words in D; CHOPIN: Waltzes; Cello Sonata in G Minor – Pieter Wispelwey, cello / Paolo Giacometti, p. – Onyx MENDELSSOHN: Cello Sonata No. 1; Cello Sonata No. 2; Song without Words in D– Robert Nagy, cello / Hiromi Okada, p. – Camerata

by | Jan 3, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

MENDELSSOHN: Cello Sonata No. 2 in D Major, Op. 58; Song without Words in D, Op. 109; CHOPIN: Waltzes Op. 64 (arr. K. Davydov); Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 65 – Pieter Wispelwey, cello / Paolo Giacometti, piano – Onyx 4078 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi], 68:24 ****:
MENDELSSOHN: Cello Sonata No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 45; Cello Sonata No. 2 in D Major, Op. 58; Song without Words in D, Op. 109 – Robert Nagy, cello / Hiromi Okada, piano – Camerata CMCD-28202 [Distr. by Albany], 61:13 **1/2:
How very different the two sonatas featured on the Onyx disc are! The Chopin is the epitome of Romantic passion and pining (and if you’re not a fan of Romantic music, I guess you could say posturing). On the other hand, the work by Mendelssohn, who so often favored minor keys, is in his sunniest D-major mood, a piece that fits his happy name to a T (felix, L. – “happy,” “lucky,” blessed”). If the Romantic artist’s sensibility can be expressed by the saying “Thrilled to the sky and ready to die,” here, Mendelssohn has the first half of that formula covered; he left the other half to be expressed by his bipolar colleagues and friendly rivals, Berlioz and Schumann.
In fact, Berlioz’s famous dig at Mendelssohn, that he was a little too fond of the dead, could be leveled at the sonata’s third movement, a chorale prelude in the manner of Bach for which Mendelssohn supplies his own chorale melody. The stirring rolled chords in the piano with which the movement begins command immediate attention, but the melancholy modal-sounding declamation from the cello that follows is even more affecting. Berlioz’s criticism notwithstanding, this is the heart and soul of the sonata, one of the finest movements in Mendelssohn’s chamber music. I’m pretty sure Brahms was thinking of it when he penned the beautiful slow movement of his own Second Cello Sonata forty years later.
Perhaps because the outer movements are so dashing or because he didn’t want to detract from the sober, heartfelt slow movement, Mendelssohn supplied for the second movement a slowish intermezzo rather than his typical quicksilver scherzo. The contrast works very well, the whole sonata adding up to a careful balance of musical moods.
Those music lovers whose knowledge of Chopin is limited to the piano music might be surprised to learn that Bellini, of all people, was one of Chopin’s favorite composers and that Chopin had a second-favorite instrument, the cello, for which he wrote just as skillfully and feelingly. The Polish composer’s Cello Sonata is the product of both those surprising enthusiasms. Chopin expended great care to achieve the proper balance between the two instruments. In doing so, he abandoned the brilliance of his earlier piano writing to craft a true accompanimental role for the instrument, creating a work that may not sound especially Chopinesque but which is nonetheless one of his finest and most deeply felt. Right from the start, Chopin has the cello singing in grand bel canto style, like the baritone in one of Bellini’s lyric tragedies. While I usually avoid self-quotation, in an earlier review of this piece I spoke of the first movement’s having a sort of “doomed heroism”; I still think that sums up Chopin’s highly operatic writing here.
Unlike Mendelssohn in his Second Sonata, Chopin feels the need to take some of the edge off that tragic first movement and so supplies a scherzo of great dash and vigor, a nocturne-like slow movement with subdued, nostalgic longing, before returning to the tragic atmosphere of the opening. The finale has a harried nervous energy relieved by a surprising turn to the major key in the coda—a call to action, as if shaking off the sense of gloom that has gone before.
In this work Pieter Wispelwey and Paolo Giacometti, playing an 1837 Érard fortepiano, have little direct competition. The only competition I’m aware of comes from Ophélie Gaillard and Edna Stern on an Aparté disc (AP003), which I reviewed earlier. On that CD, Edna Stern plays a wonderful-sounding 1843 Pleyel grand piano. Since Pleyel pianos were favored by Chopin (and indeed he almost certainly debuted the Cello Sonata on one at Paris’s Salle Pleyel in 1847), the Gaillard and Stern performance has an added authority about it, but their performance is so different in temperament as to offer not so much a rival version as an appealing alternative to Wispelwey and Giacometti. Where Gaillard and Stern emphasize the dark brooding of Chopin’s music, Wispelwey and Giacometti bring a brighter palette to it, emphasizing the heroic gestures of the first and last movements, the fiery élan of the scherzo. I wouldn’t want to be without either of these terrific historically informed performances.
In the Mendelssohn, too, there is little direct competition that I’m aware of. Still at the top of my list is the team of Stephen Isserlis, cello, and Melvin Tan, fortepiano (RCA Red Seal 62553). They capture all the youthful exuberance of the Second Sonata, and in fact their approach is similar to Wispelwey and Giacometti’s; the only thing to choose between these versions is the very different program that each offers.
As addenda, Wispelwey and Giacometti include Mendelssohn’s Song without Words, nicely played, and nineteenth-century cello virtuoso Karl Davydov’s arrangement of Chopin’s Op. 64 Waltzes. These are hair-raisingly challenging, especially Opus 64, No. 1 (the “Minute Waltz”), and Wispelwey rises gallantly to the challenge. However, transferring Chopin’s lightning-quick runs from the piano to the cello means that what for the pianist is simply a contest of smooth legato execution becomes for the cellist a forlorn hope as he/she must scramble to make those runs sound as fluid and musical—or failing that, as little scrappy and rough-hewn as possible. Cellists may register shock and awe over the performances, but to me these arrangements are closer to a party trick than to a truly musical experience. To each his own. This reservation aside, I have nothing but praise for the performances and for Onyx’s recording, which achieves perfect balance and fine detail in a resonant acoustic.
Like other discs that offer the complete Mendelssohn cello sonatas, the Camerata CD offers a makeweight, again the Opus 109 Song without Words. However, a number of rival recordings contain the complete music for cello and piano, which includes Mendelssohn’s Assai tranquillo in B minor and Variations Concertantes, Op. 17, as well as Op. 109. This fact is worth considering if you want the two cello sonatas, especially since Robert Nagy and Hiromi Okada’s performance of the Second Cello Sonata is uncompetitive. Mendelssohn’s scintillating outer movements are slowed from Allegro assai vivace and Molto Allegro e vivace respectively to a cautiously plodding Allegretto quasi allegro or thereabouts. This gives the performers time to add special emphases here and there, but the music really doesn’t need or benefit from these ministrations. Mendelssohn’s more classically-attuned First Sonata (modeled on Beethoven’s leonine Third Cello Sonata) receives a better performance, with tender songfulness emphasized over sheer drama, but the lackluster Second Sonata takes this disc out of competition.
—Lee Passarella

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